Monday, August 28, 2017

Angler In Darkness

Angler in Darkness by Edward M. Erdelac. A short story anthology, originally published August, 2017. Approx. 329 pages.


Here we have a collection of tales, most collected from previous publications; with some that were previously unpublished. You have a fairly diverse group here; starting off with a slew of weird Westerns, and then giving us a mix of kaiju stories, Irish mob tales with a supernatural twist, tales inspired by Japanese folklore, and unique takes on classic stories.

This is one of the rare anthologies where, quite frankly, every story is a winner. There are no middling or marginal entries here. If you haven't read any of Erdelac's work before, consider this a perfect primer, or sampling platter. I really enjoy the interests from which he sources his material, and he always seeks tirelessly to put fresh/unique twists on all of them. Many stories have elements of the weird and horrific, and he makes sure to grant these takes legitimacy via logical execution. Also, he writes some of the best, bloodiest action scenes out there.

I will say that the arrangement of the stories threw me a bit. The collection is front-loaded with the Western tales, and then the remaining stories are somewhat randomly ordered. Also, there were a few typos throughout - averaging about one or two per entry. No dealbreaker for me; but they are out there.

But, again, great stories, and a sweet cover to boot! Here are my takes on the individual entries. Enjoy!

The Mound of the Night Panther: The first story in the collection tells the tale of Auguste Oudin; a trapper of French and Indian heritage who sets off on hunt for gold, and instead unearths a terrible history lesson.

After bringing some priests down to the States from Canada, Oudin barters with a local Indian boy for a gold-flecked gaming piece. To him, this is a veritable treasure map, leading to a claim, and prosperity. However, what he finds instead are a collection of huge monumental mounds; too massive to be barrows, and permeating with a palpable aura of foreboding.

Setting up camp, Oudin finds himself approached by an Indian elder; who begins to share with him the history of the sacred land...

Ok, you can tell from the premise that all will probably not go well here. However, what makes this story pop is Erdelac's respect for the source material, attention to detail, and talent for portraying vivid, brutal acts of violence. Native American lore is ripe with great material; and in this tale we hear of the Mishipijiw, the terrifying "water panther". We also find ourselves awash in the blood-soaked pages of this culture's history.

On a personal level, there is another reason why this story resonated with me. I remember when I was a little kid, we went on a school trip to the Museum of Natural History. Well, actually, it was a fairly popular school trip destination, but I remember one time most of all. Maybe I was the right age for being impressionable to the material, maybe it was a great tour guide. But in this visit, I first learned the story of Romulus and Remus, as well as the Indian tribes that played games in great arenas, with their very lives on the line. And now, Erdelac has incorporated elements from both legends; tales from separate continents, into one powerful short story.

All in all, a direct premise yields anything but a simple story. Erdelac pulls you back in time, drags you through a hallucinogenic nightmare, and leaves you in a place where the tenuous membrane between reality and legend isn't just blurred, it is torn to shreds. Great story to kick off an anthology.

Killer of the Dead: Here we have another 'weird Western'; but in this case, it's a fast, violent piece with all the surprise and power of a sudden gut-punch. The premise here is simple and direct: a young Indian boy, staying up late to greet the men of the village when they return from a hunt, bears witness to a quartet of pale riders as they massacre they village. There is a twist, of course; these riders are not just typical white men: they are not only in for wanton slaughter; they also suck the very life out of their victims.

Killer of the Dead gives us a setup, a conflict, and a resolution; but the execution ensures that it yields much more than that. Erdelac focuses on the right details to make each character identifiable and memorable (especially the villains). This is a difficult task when working within a very tight word count. The violence is also well done; brutal and pulpy. But, perhaps my highest praise can be awarded to the "vampire elements": for example, the imagery of their cheeks drawing in as they take deep drinks from their prey is something that sticks with you.

This is a great little story. As said, it's very short, and very violent. There is no expository backstory involved; but the details given tell you all you need to know. Actually, allow me to correct myself - there is a bit of backstory, if you take the minute to read the author's intro. Here, Erdelac lists some of the inspirations that went into this tale; including the criminally underrated vampire film Near Dark.

Bigfoot Walsh: The third story in the anthology is also a Western tale. Here we have the first person POV of  Keidel, a liberal-minded Dutch doctor who helps both settlers as well as local Indians. He joins up with a group of Texas Rangers to investigate a brutal raid (read: murder spree) that the Rangers are eager to pin upon the Comanche Indians (with whom the locals have a tenuous treaty in place). With the dual hope of preserving this treaty, as well as assisting any survivors, he sets off with them.

Along the way, they meet up with the titular Walsh, a quite literal Sasquatch type who is an excellent tracker/pathfinder for the Rangers. He has some leads of his own in his mind as to who the culprits are, and the group sets out with new purpose. No one, in the end, is quite prepared for what they are about to face.

Bigfoot Walsh is yet another excellent entry. Violence is the very lifeblood here; and of the first three stories, this is the one that yields the most primal ferocity and pent-up rage; as the story escalates from a routine search into something akin to Eaters of the Dead.

On top of all the other great elements here, it is the character of Walsh that seals the deal. Erdelac makes him into such an interesting entity that he outright steals every scene that he is in.

If there is one thing that I could cite as a detraction to the tale, it's the character of Keidel. I know he is integral in that he will 'bear witness' to what transpires, but I think he could've done more to show his overall mettle in the climactic action piece. Other than that, solid all around.

Devil's Cap Brawl: This is the story that first introduced me to Erdelac's work; and I originally read it in the Kaiju Rising anthology. So, I'll just copy paste that review here:

This was a fun one. Devil's Cap Brawl is set in the Dead West universe (also published by Ragnarok, I've read a bit of the first book - Those Poor, Poor, Bastards by Tim Marquitz - and really enjoyed it).

In this story, workers for a railroad baron literally unearth a long-buried miscreant monster as they go about blasting through the titular mountain. Luckily for them, they find that they have a rather unconventional ally on their side. I really don't want to get too much into it, for the sake of avoiding spoilers.

The writing here, as in the other Dead West books, is balls to the wall and full throttle. A lot of the stories in this anthology have curses, but this takes it to a new level, peppered throughout with some quite politically incorrect language. The fact that the protagonists nickname was bestowed upon him for the sheer volume of blasphemous language he uses is one clue. The fact that he is also a brash, back street brawling Irishman in the 1800's in charge of Indians and Chinamen should give you another hint of what kind of language is in store.

Erdelac does a great job in painting the scenery, fleshing out his monster, and choreographing the action. I had a bit of trouble at first with the "good guy", but he made it work. This story is the badass bastard offspring of the frantic coupling of classic Western pulp tales and good old fashioned giant monster stories.

Spearfinger: In Spearfinger, a Cherokee half-breed sheriff named Ben Burnham is on the trail of a town ne'er do well who has committed a pretty heinous crime. As his quarry flees up a mountain, attempting an egress to Arkansas, Burnham, the victim's loved ones, and all else involved find themselves within the domain of a horrifying creature known as Spearfinger.

Although this is another Western story, Erdelac flexes some serious horror chops in this outing. He imbues his characters with enough depth and personal baggage to make them all empathetic, an his depiction of the titular creature is pretty bone-rattling. But his best work is in the descriptions and detailing, shown in such colorful metaphors as comparing the click-clacking of branches in the wind to "the applause of skeletal hands". That's good stuff right there.

See also some influences from other books and movies peppered throughout. The crime committed by the slow-minded Waterback carries shades of Cormac McCarthy's "Child of God". There are also scenes evocative of the body-snatcher horrors of "The Thing".

This is a great story that I will avoid going into too much detail on, so as to avoid spoilers. But it is Erdelac at his violent, terrifying top form.

In Thunder's Shadow: I really enjoyed the premise of this story. Set during the Bone Wars, we follow academic Calvin Pabodie and his grizzled guide Neb Bukes as he sets out to research the area where a fossil was discovered.

In this story, Erdelac gleefully fleshes out a full-blown dinosaur adventure based upon the old, staged Huachuca/Thunderbird photos. Coupling his already mentioned versatile and colorful prose with truly memorable characters yields a yarn the spoke directly to my younger, dinosaur-obsessed self.

Pabodie is a classic, textbook academic character on a quest for a new discovery. Bukes, on the other hand, absolutely steals the show. He is a cantankerous combination of Rooster Cogburn and Matthew McConaughey's character in Reign of Fire.

I cannot laud enough Erdelac's job in making the pteranodons seem 'real' here. Instead of just trying to impress the reader with size or danger, he makes them living flesh; as if they are terrifying entities that you can reach out and touch - or ones that could reach out and snatch you.

Also, this story has some of the most vivid and imaginative violence in the whole book. I mean, in how many stories does the protagonist get knocked out cold by a donkey leg blown off in an explosion? You tell me.

The Blood Bay: I am reviewing these stories as I read them; but I'm predicting that this might just be the best tale in the anthology. The Blood Bay, as Erdelac explains in the introduction, plays off of the narrative of Steinbeck's 'The Red Pony' (one of my least favorite books of all time), and then ups the ante by incorporating such legendary equines as the Man-Eating Horses of Diomedes and Alexander the Great's own steed, Bucephalus.

In The Blood Bay, we meet Jonas, a sullen young boy whose father has absconded for greener pastures; leaving him in the care of his alcoholic mother and bitter grandmother. After a gruesome turn of events, his father comes to collect him, and try to integrate him into the better life that he has made for himself. This is no easy transition for a boy already molded by bitterness; although a glimmer of hope soon arrives in the form of the titular steed.

Gifted to Jonas by his appeasing father, there is a wildness and fierceness about this new horse; as well as something unsettling to all those around. As misfortune begins to falls upon Jonas' new 'family', we quickly realize that this is not just a wild-spirited horse; it is no less than a creature transplanted from the aforementioned mythologies. And, while we see the thin veneer of the 'perfect life' of Jonas' father, Famous Fallon, erode over the course of the tale, we cannot help but stare in awe at the perfect bond between the boy and his horse.

It is, indeed, the depth of the characters that make this story the minor masterpiece that it is. It is the strength of these characters that bolster the premise, which is so ludicrous that it is bold. I was blown away by the character of Jonas - here we have a true representation of a boy hardened way too early in life, due primarily to the actions of those who should have looking out for him instead of themselves. The harsh life lessons he learns early on are the drivers for his tightly coiled anger and reticence. And, it frightens me to a degree; since I have seen boys my son's age, around where we live, who come from tough or broken homes, who carry themselves and speak much in the same way as Jonas. I find myself seeing their faces as I read the words coming out of his mouth.

The action and violence in this story is much like as in the other tales; it is dark, brutal, bloody, oftentimes sudden and shocking, but never over the top or superfluous to the narrative. It must be a difficult balance to strike; but it is done successfully here.

The Blood Bay is a frightening story that will likely haunt you for days after reading it.

The Exclusive: According to the author intro for this tale, this one ties into the Merkabah Rider series, which has definitely been on the TBR horizon for a while. This tale might be responsible for moving it up a few rungs in reading expediency.

In The Exclusive, we meet Barry Twiggs, a reporter at a New Mexico newspaper who most decidedly opts to step on precisely the wrong toes (continuously) when he commits to printing all the dirt he can dig up on local magnate Tom Cotter. This leads to harassment, assaults, and, finally his untimely death. However, in this surprisingly clever and deep story, death is just the beginning. For, in this story, death brings Death, and Twiggs offers the proposal to hear His side of the story.

I don't know how much the Angel of Death appears in the Merkabah Rider series; but, if he is handled this well in them, he might just be the kind of scene-stealer that Death in the Discworld series always was.

The best part of this yarn come in when Erdelac uses Death (or, properly, Samael) as a mouthpiece to recount happenings from the very beginning of time. We get hints about Satan's fall from grace, and of Adam and Lilith's earliest transgressions and petulance. These are very engrossing and interesting portions.

Erdelac also makes Samael a sympathetic soul: a being who is, in turns, stoic, withdrawn, rageful, dutiful, and mournful. But, what allows us to find commonality with him is that he has, like all of us, suffered at one point from that most tragic, and deeply felt hurt of all: the loss of love.

The portrayal of Twiggs is well done, also. Personally, his banter with Samael gets a bit too cute at times, but I can understand the Erdelac is trying to keep some levity flowing through some otherwise sombre material. Plus, as we can see over the full course of the story, Twiggs is not just a one-note narrator. Like Death, he has a story to tell as well. And, it is a truly heartbreaking one.

Tell Tom Tildrum: Ah, yes, there was some really good stuff in this story. Although, I will say, to truly enjoy this tale at its fullest, you might want to do a bit of homework first. Definitely read the author's intro, as well as Erdelac's blog post about what went into making this tale. Then, if you aren't familiar with them, read up on some of the notorious exploits of "white hunters" as well as the Happy Valley Set.

So, this story first appeared in an anthology called 'Tales from the Bell Chair', the premise of which posited an exclusive club which members could only join by regaling the current members with a shocking personal tale, and having it be riveting enough to garner their approval. Nice. Very cool.

In Tell Tom Tildrum, the prospective new member is one Captain Howe, who will choose to tell a certain story from among his drink and drug-addled days of running with the Happy Valley folks. The tale he tells recounts a lion hunt that goes horribly, horribly wrong. And that's all I'll say on that, so as to avoid spoilers.

Erdelac's 'method writing', making the setting so palpable that it allows for complete reader immersion, is what truly elevates the story here. It is not just making the horizon feel alive; there is something great in how he captures the mindset of these people; for whom their personal hedonism allowed them to blithely eschew anything that even remotely resembled a moral compass.

For me, the end sequence came off as a bit over the top - well, to be honest, I never wanted the story to leave Kenya - but, it does make sense in the tying up the narrative, so I can't complain. It also incorporates the angle of citing the classic fable "The King o' the Cats". Plus, the closing lines are, in equal amounts, beautiful and jarring.

Mighty Nanuq: As previously mentioned, my first exposure to Erdelac came from his Kaiju Rising contribution. Little did I know just how many 'giant monster' tales he has under his belt. Here we have another stellar kaiju outing from him, with a tale that originally appeared in Mechanoid Press' anthology "Monster Earth". I guess the premise in that collection is that each country has a "national kaiju" of sorts; akin to the country specific jaegers in Pacific Rim. Not sure if all of these stories tie in to WWII, however.

So, in Mighty Nanuq, Erdelac chooses to focus on the titular creature, the local representative for - Canada. Well, not exactly the first country to pop into one's mind when veering towards discourse on the Great War, but Erdelac has stated that he wanted to do a story focusing on the Inuit, and this was a grand opportunity.

Nanuq focuses on Hal Anawak, who is retiring from his post in Canadian Intelligence; and his relationship with his estranged, angry young activist nephew Matthew. Actually, I should clarify on the importance of the activist angle real quick - in the backdrop of this story is the occupation of Alcatraz Island by Native Americans in the late 60's. I had never in fact heard of this story; and I appreciate an author who can send you running to the history books without shoving an agenda down your throat.

Matthew is more of a rally attending, fist pumping activist; and he harbors a bit of resentment for his uncle, whom he believes to have sold his heritage to become the white man's stooge. Over the course of the story, he is going to get a real education.

Erdelac manages to pack a lot into this story. I don't know if it is a part of this anthology, or just this story, that these monster stories showcase a relationship between the monster and a "master" of sorts (one who as either direct control or influence; with Nanuq it is the latter). As Hal helps Matthew come to grips with his shaman lineage, we get a flashback to WWII, and how Hal began his work with the Canadian government. This is where we get to the meat of the kaiju action, as Nanuq does battle with an abominable, stitched together Nazi horror.

Kudos on a well-choreographed battle, too. Erdelac hit all the right notes on a giant monster scrap - size, scope, and brutality. On paper, Nanuq might seem a bit bland - just a huge polar bear wit bright blue eyes. But, in the finished product, he is a sight to behold.

Erdelac shows strong finesse in other detailing aspects as well. In describing a Nazi U-Boat and its crew, he perfectly portrays the shape of it and the different uniforms of the crew in basically the space of a paragraph. He does this by stressing the important details and letting the reader's imagination fill in the blanks.

Finally, the story caps off with a return to the 'present' of 1969. And, in tying things up, he integrates elements of duty, heritage, and racial politics, all without teetering into the exploitative or hamfisted. No mean feat, there.

A Haunt of Jackals: Every good anthology deserves a follow-up, it stands to reason. So, there Mechanoid followed up Monster Island with 'Betrayal on Monster Island', which again features a contribution by Erdelac.

In Haunt of Jackals, Erdelac gets to play around more with his created Nazi "Monstrum" program. Here, we meet a group of Mossad Nazi hunters as they go deep into Paraguay to retrieve the Monstrum equivalent of Dr. Mengele.

Of course, the doctor has not been idle in all of these years since the war. And, as our protagonist, Boaz, attempts to close the deal on the pick-up, he is treated to a taste of the doctor's efforts.

Remember, in the Monster Island world, each country gets its own monster. Dr. Austerlitz' calling is in making monsters. It piqued the interest of the Nazis and their deep coffers during the war; and now, it has attracted new suitors - the Mukhbarat, Iraq's Intelligence Agency. This, of course, does not bode well at all for Boaz's new home state of Israel.

What we have in 'Haunt of Jackals' is 99% of a great kaiju story. Why only 99%? Well, let's heap the praise before we pick the nits.

We definitely get a solid lead in Boaz. Erdelac has made this aging, hardened Nazi-hunter into a real person. Boaz has survived the camps; whereas his family did not. He carries the wide palette of emotions that I am sure many Jews did as they made Israel their new home, and tried to find some closure with what had happened: anger, sadness, frustration, fear, and hope. Boaz knows that his shelf life is expiring, and he wants to go out with a big catch.

We also get some fantastic kaiju, yet again. Once again, there are creatures that seem little more than giant animals (in this case, the pair of striped hyenas), but what Erdelac has done to make them memorable (especially their breath weapons) is extremely commendable. On the Israeli side, there is a defender as well. Not surprisingly, it is a type of golem; but the execution brings to mind a type of Krav Maga Daimajin.

Another important aspect of kaiju stories is location. I'm sure one of the best parts of planning a giant monster tale is determining just where they are going to destroy. Are they going to take down famous landmarks? The author's hometown that he or she always hated?

The important thing in bringing these areas to life, of course, is making sure to capture what actually gave that area its importance. You don't just talk about smashing apart New York City and describe the buildings falling; you need to make it feel like NYC for authenticity.

The point I am trying to make here is that Erdelac does this in an astounding manner during the story's climax in Jerusalem. Through Boaz's eyes, we can truly process the importance of the religious landmarks being destroyed. Giving us a sense of the true value of these monuments increases the urgency driving all efforts to stop the rogue creatures. This touch adds a real sense of reader investment.

So, I guess that brings us to the one thing I had an issue with - the ending. And that is; it all ends way too abruptly. I'm not talking about an ambiguous ending. I literally mean you may go back and forth on that page, expecting a new chapter to start because that is really how suddenly it all ends. I thought perhaps there was some kind of error, but this story is bookended on both sides with well-chosen Bible passages, so I knew that it was over.

Perhaps it was setting the stage for more stories with Boaz? If that's the case, I'm on board. Apart from the abrupt end, this is a fantastic kaiju tale, with a unique choice for setting that was executed in a fantastic manner.

The Better To See You: According to the author intro, the idea for this entry arose from some story swapping between Erdelac and his seven-year old daughter. What it is is a new, modern take on the classic Little Red Riding Hood story.

The Better To See You is the shortest tale in the book so far. But, within that economic page count, it delivers a lot of evocative, image heavy prose, as well as palpable tension and danger.

I really can't say much more about it. We all know the origin story. Going from that, it's best to just sit back and watch what daughter and father did with a modern, alternate take.

Conviction: What a raw, powerful story here. In Conviction, we meet Abassi, a young boy growing up in a truly hellish landscape - the former Cabrini-Green housing projects in Chicago. Abassi is a bright boy with real artistic talent - all skills that are usually suffocated beneath the broken families, oppressive poverty, and oppressive gang presence/control that ghettos are often so rife with.

But, there's more to this story. Actually, it is something that has been done before. This is one of those stories where the theme is "if you believe hard enough, it will become real". This sounds routine until you run it through the lens of the absolutely hellish landscape which Abassi must walk everyday.

Continuously harassed by the local gangs, plagued by the memories of what they did to his sister, and even talked down to by his own grandmother, Abassi finds a glimmer of hope in Ms. Orozco (a guidance counselor or social worker, or someone in that capacity); only to have that one glimmering ray of benevolence yanked away from him; consumed by the ever-hungry furnace of ghetto misery.

Once that happens, Abassi will use the power of belief, as well as his artistic talent, to paint new pictures.

So, if The Blood Bay is going down as my favorite story in the anthology, then this is a close second. As I mentioned, the premise of "belief becoming real" has been done before, but I've never seen it done like this. Not many authors can effectively capture a prose snapshot of the projects, but Erdelac does it here. I seriously cannot lavish enough praise on the legitimacy that his attention to authenticity has imbued this story with. From the desolate panorama, to the spot on 'hood dialect, even down to the gang-specific writing on the walls, he has truly brought the projects to life.

Then, there are the "pictures" themselves. What I truly love about this story is that, at the turning point where Abassi begins to make his pictures real, you cannot tell for sure if this is literally happening; or if it is the coping mechanism of an unreliable narrator. The pictures themselves are terrifying in proposal, without going into exploitative, full detail. Erdelac is a shrewd enough author to give the reader enough notes so that they can fill in the details in their own minds; and then be horrified by the results. There is some amazing stuff here; and we have to come to terms with how satisfying it is to the vengeful spirits within us.

And through this all, Abassi remains a strong protagonist. He is never held up as a cheap prop to curry sympathy for those whose dreams and talents are crushed on a daily basis by the ghetto meat grinder. As outlandish as the story proceedings become; he never turns into a cartoonish villain. Abassi is, from beginning to end; a smart boy with a good heart that has become hardened way before his time by the environment which he lives in. And, in the end, all he wanted to do was draw a beautiful picture.

Crocodile: When I was reading the descriptions of the stories in this anthology, this is one of the ones that sealed the day. What a deliciously ludicrous premise: a Pizza Hut cashier at a seedy Interstate truck stop falls in love with a modern day (read:sparkly type) vampire. That's great stuff. As if to up the ante, Erdelac even finds time to use elements of the classic Peter Pan story as the underpinning for the narrative.

It's fairly apparent that Erdelac is having a fun time with this story. What we have is a stinging indictment on the current state of vampire fandom. The observations run the gamut of shrewd quips right up to blatant mockery. The girls of my youth that touched themselves to Lestat have grown up and spawned a legion of teenyboppers that gush and fawn over sparkling pansies like Edward Cullen. And Gwendolyn, our protagonist here, is a prime example of this demographic. There's a good deal of fun poked at her narrow-mindedness and naivete; even though there is a real kind of sadness to her narrow little world; a world of dirty, lusty truck drivers that only the attention of a pale, fanged, waifish pretty boy can offer liberation from.

Taking all of this outlandish, and seemingly incongruous inputs, and making an engaging, cohesive story out of them was no mean feat, but Erdelac has done it. I won't teeter into spoiler territory by going into too much detail; but even at the point where you can see that things are not going well, there are some fresh surprises. Also, the attention to detail; as well as an authentic sense of place, really bring the location to life. This story blends the levity and tension of the scenario in a seemingly effortless manner. Cannot recommend enough.

Philopatry: In this story, an old South Boston priest seeks out a former altar boy turned hitman to solicit his 'services'. It turns out that there has been a recent string of gruesome murders; and the priest, Father O'Malley, has come in possession of the identity of the killer via the confession booth. It's a tough call for our erstwhile killer, Terry Dunne. But, given the heinous nature of the killings, he opts to help put an end to them.

Again, I really don't want to go into too many details here, for there are some surprises. Then again, Erdelac gives the biggest of these away in the author's intro, so there's that. There's also something really interesting in those notes: it turns out Erdelac had written an initial version of this book in High School; we have no idea how rough or raw that version was, but if the framework was the same, it's very commendable.

So again, without letting loose with spoilers; I can still comment on all the things done right here. Again, we have characters that are superbly fleshed out; as the reader you feel as though you are in their heads; grappling with their inner demons. I haven't spent much time in Boston myself, but there was a real sense of placement.

And then there is the violence. Most of the stories in this anthology have had some fairly brutal scenes in them, but the action scenes in Philopatry are some of the best, bar none.

The whole story reads with a seamless, cinematic quality; culminating in a rousing sequence, and capping off with a scene that begs for a serialized continuation.

Also, kudos for the history lesson on St. Mercurius.

Sea Of Trees: The interest in Aokigahara, Japan's 'suicide forest', has been a true cultural phenomenon, spread like wildfire courtesy of the internet. Erdelac offers a fresh story here, using the forest as his basis. As he notes in his introduction; instead of doing a ghost story, he focuses on how the occurrences of suicides within the forest spike in correlation with the close of the fiscal year. He uses this as a springboard for the plain and simple tragedy that is the inarguable fact that we are ruled to such a large extent by money. Our security in our quality of life is tied to designed paper; or, in modern times, dancing numbers on a computer.

This brings us to our protagonist, Manabu. It is easy to sympathize with, and, for many of us, outright identify with Manabu (especially those of us that weathered the Great Recession). Working insane hours in an accounting job; Manabu should have been able to carve out some semblance of an enjoyable life. But, in modern day Japan, still unable to right itself after the burst of the economic bubble of the 80's, life is a never-ending hamster wheel of exorbitant rents, bills, and loans due. So, even with a decent position; Manabu is still living paycheck to paycheck, over 15 hours a day, and only barely keeping his nose above water.

Correct that. He was. Now, after the close of the fiscal year, his company decided that "he was a redundant expenditure", and so, he has no options, and no safety net.

Then again, he has no family, and no children. By that metric, an easy egress via a stroll into the suicide forest seems a logical solution.

I never expected this kind of take on the Aokigahara legend. I also never expected the execution to be this good, either. The opening scenes were kind of a crushing blow; bringing to mind a lot of painful memories of when financial burdens were a lot more oppressive. Also, the scenes with Manabu's mother never failed to bring a tear to my eye. It really shows us how tragic it is that that pure, honest maternal love has to be replaced by indentured servitude to currency.

The tone switches gears a bit towards the middle, as Manabu meets a 'grave robber' of sorts, allowing for a bit of honest discourse and introspection.

The 'third act', if that's what we should call it, adds a bit of dark humor to the dark material. I really did not see the story panning out like this, but it does tie the story up nicely.

Read this story; get you priorities in life straight, and don't take anything for granted.

Thy Just Punishments: From the Aokigahara suicide forest, we find ourselves transported back to South Boston. Once again we have the church seen in Philopatry, and a tenuous reference to that story (a mention of Terry Dunne heading to jail dates this tale as a bit before that one). In Punishments, we meet Father Tim O'Herlihey, a real dirtbag of the cloth who drones through the monotonous rituals of his calling, as he dips his fingers into the collection boxes to support his habit of betting (and losing) at the track. He also has a side gig as well - as a "occult hitman" to the Irish mob. I won't go into the detail of what qualifies as an occult hitman; it is a really cool concept, executed with precision by Erdelac.

The Just Punishments is another of the shorter entries in the anthology; and, according to the author notes, one of Erdelac's first outings with putting a humorous touch in his tales. I'm guessing that makes it an earlier story for him; since he really seems to have found his stride in imbuing deft (and sometimes overt) touches of humor through his tales.

The best thing about this story is the fact that O'Herlihey's main foil is a shriveled little Irish biddy; transplanted from a neighboring church undergoing renovations. She sees through his B.S. with a clarity beyond the capacity of her rheumy old eyes, and harries him at every turn with a doggedness that type usually only reserves for clipping coupons and bingo night.

If there is anything I could recommend for this story; it'd be a little more info on the amount of money O'Herlihey has pilfered, and the true extent of his gambling habit. Also, an idea of just how many 'hits' he has performed; all of these could solidify his scumbag status a bit more and allow us to truly enjoy him getting his "just punishments".

On a personal note, I really enjoyed the author's intro here. Being raised Catholic as well, there were some similar stories here. Erdelac tells of the incident that turned him off of church, as well as a story about a little old lady. For me, the incident that turned me off of church involved a little old lady and an asshole priest. Just putting that out there; for it seems that as we get further into the book, Erdelac opens more and more in his notes; making them just as interesting as the stories.

The Wrath Of Benjo: With this story, Erdelac truly saves the weirdest for last. The concept for Wrath of Benjo takes root in the idea of tsukomogami, a Japanese legend that postulates that tools, or items, can acquire a spirit after a century. In this unique tale, we meet a toilet, long idle, that comes self-aware after existing for a hundred years.

Crossing paths with this long-forgotten, yet eternally proud commode is Araki, a news photographer who finds himself bouncing along the back roads of the boonie village in the midst of a tumultuous storm. However, the storm is not the only source of turbulence; there is also a roiling, raging unrest in his bowels. Seeking any port in the storm; he comes across the forgotten Benjo.

Then, in his naivete, he makes the error of doubting Benjo's studious attention to his duties.

Not a good idea when your ass is literally on the line.

What follows is a true gross-out climax; and I'll just leave it to you to read since it is probably the shortest, yet wildest, tale in the book.

The only things that didn't really work here was that it decidedly felt like a modern day story; yet Erdelac had to mention advanced technology in other areas of Japan to suggest that the events transpire in the future. Since Benjo is a Western style toilet, his hundred year sentience wouldn't occur until later this century. Still, a lot of gross fun here; even if I was wincing almost the entire time.

You can get your copy of Angler in Darkness here. At $3.99 for 18 great stories, it's a steal.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Melancholy Of Haruhi Suzumiya (Haruhi Suzumiya Vol. 1)

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. English translation originally published by Yen Press, 2009. Approx. 200 pages (some interior illustrations).

As mentioned in other reviews, I've been out of the anime loop for well over a decade. I am aware of some of the powerhouse series that have come and gone within that span, but I've only just gotten around to trying to catch up on them. Also, I've mentioned how wonderful the prevalence of these light novel translations has become. I mean, talk about the best of both worlds - book format and anime themes. So, I decided to take a break from the SAO novels, both to allow me to catch up on the show, and avoid series fatigue. In doing so, I perused my local library's catalog of light novels and came upon this one. I knew that Haruhi Suzumiya had had a huge impact upon its release, so now was the time to see what all the hubbub was about. As I wait for one of my friends to lend me his copy of the series, I tore into this, the first light novel.

First, the blurb:

Haruhi holds the fate of the universe in her hands . . . lucky for you she doesn't know it!

Meet Haruhi - a cute, determined girl, starting high school in a city where nothing exciting happens and absolutely no one understands her.

Meet Kyon ­­- the sarcastic guy who sits behind Haruhi in homeroom and the only boy Haruhi has ever opened up to. His fate is now tied to hers.

Meet the S.O.S. Brigade - an after-school club organized by Haruhi with a mission to seek out the extraordinary. Oh, and their second mission? Keeping Haruhi happy . . . because even though she doesn't know it, Haruhi has the power to destroy the universe. Seriously.

The phenomenon that took Japan by storm - with more than 4.5 million copies sold - is now available in the first-ever English edition.

Fair enough cursory summary. And, to be honest, I really don't want to go into too many details, since it's a lot more fun to see them unfold as you turn the pages.

Even though Haruhi is the literal center of this universe, the story is told (via first person perspective) through the eyes of Kyon. Kyon is a young man, just entering his first year of high school, who finds himself sitting at a desk in front of this enigmatic and infamous young lady. A bond of sorts between them grows, perhaps due to Haruhi's declaration that she wants nothing to do with "ordinary" people, being much more interested in aliens, spies, and those with ESP (Kyon had, as a matter of fact, been lamenting over growing out of belief of just those kinds of entities in the prologue).

Haruhi is a bit of an odd bird; cute as a button, but bossy, domineering, and standoffish. With Kyon in tow, she proceeds to create the SOS Brigade, all to satisfy her quest of finding the interesting character types that she mentioned in her homeroom introduction. In the process, she enlists a few other members as well.

As the story progresses, each of these characters divulges to Kyon who they really are, and what their inherent interests in Haruhi are. These all seem to be along the lines of Haruhi being some god-like entity; one upon whom the actual fate of the world is contingent upon. One thing they all seem to agree upon is that Kyon is the linchpin to maintaining Haruhi's interest in keeping the world as it is.

Again, I don't want to go into too much more detail, for the sake of letting readers enjoy the story evolution on their own.

As far as English translations go, this is, without a doubt, one of the best that I have ever read. This is an immensely readable, accessible, and enjoyable book. I'm sure it was like that in its original Japanese text, and I'm glad it got a translation that does it justice. One particular highlight is in conveying the emotions behind what are usually facial responses in the anime; it isn't easy to transfer those moments to paper and prose, but in this novel it is done right.

Another thing I must praise is how the story grabs you and drags you along. I have to admit, at first I didn't see myself finishing this book - Kyon's sardonic humor makes him a great lead, but it is really hard to like Haruhi at first. Then, the reader finds themselves unwillingly dragged along by here - much like Kyon himself. There is something special about her there, that is for sure.

And then, before you know it, it's over. Now, I will probably read the next installments, but in my own humble opinion, this book works great as a one shot deal. I mean, it tells a complete story, with a wonderful, playfully ambiguous ending. It's the type of ending that is structured in a way that any conclusions that the reader draws can be validated with previous cues - a true payoff for the reader's investment.

This leaves the reader with a true mystery; should the book be taken literally, or is it all constructed within the imagination of an unreliable narrator such as Kyon? Again, I'll be seeing what direction they take it in the subsequent volumes, as well as the anime, but I'd recommend again enjoying this book as a standalone piece. It's well worth it.

Cover:

I think the hardcover edition of this book has a dustjacket with a more manga-inspired cover. This edition, the paperback, has the cover shown above. I really like this cover. The color and font are playful and eye-catching, and by just showing a silhouette, rather than an actual anime character, it doesn't isolate readers that might otherwise turn their noses up at a light novel.

The few interior illustrations are fairly basic. There are some nice color pics inside, as well as a welcome manga sample excerpt.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Terminator

The Terminator by Shaun Hutson. Originally published by Star, 1984. Approx. 165pgs.

One novelization that has definitely been on my radar this year is for The Terminator. I mean, this movie remains iconic, even over thirty years after its initial release. So, the curiosity surrounding how the novel turned out is quite high. I knew that Randall Frakes had done the novel work, and also that this book runs very high in the secondary market (lowest prices rarely fall below $30). However, I didn't realize until perusing some blogs lately that The Terminator actually had two novelizations. Indeed, it turns out that the Frakes book is actually the second one released; the first being penned by British author Shaun Hutson, best known for spinner-rack horror novels (as well as WWII books and some Westerns). Better yet, it is the more affordable of the two (I snagged this copy for about $6, after shipping), and most reviews of it were positive. So, I got a copy and tore right through it. How was it? Read on...

As with other novelizations, we have no idea what version of the script the author had to work with, or if anybody had already been cast. I will say this; Hutson's novel adheres very closely to the finished movie. Also, the characters are described well enough to assign the actors too (especially Traxler). There are some minor differences in background characters, and certain locations have different names as well (sadly, Tech Noir is known as Stoker's in the novel).

Now, knowing that the novel plays out very close to the movie, what then is the draw of reading the novel? It all falls on the writing style of the author. I was not familiar with Hutson prior to this novel, and I was interested to see how a horror specialist would handle this story, which actually does have some horror elements in it (I can remember being pretty scared of the Terminator skeleton as a 10 year old back in '84). Here's the thing: Hutson has a really sharp, detailed writing style that moves at a brisk pace. He is very descriptive, and shrewd enough to focus on the details that matter. Case in point; when describing a rainstorm that breaks a few days of continuous L.A. heat, he also describes how that torrential downpour - something that should be a welcome respite - actually releases all the saturated stench of the City. Growing up in a major city, in the same time period, this gave me PTSD-level flashbacks. He also employs a kind of colloquial, conversational tone as well. For example, when discussing some of the food at the restaurant Sarah works at, he outright calls it "junk". It might seem like poor or puerile writing, but believe me, when you are flipping the pages, it is all part of the flow. You don't always have to use lofty terms such as "gastrointestinal abomination"; sometimes junk is just junk. Writing is about picking the right word at the right time.

The real area in which Hutson's extremely descriptive style yields noticeable dividends is when he is talking about wounds and injuries. It may be his horror chops flexing, but the man can write some serious gore. The shooting scenes from the movie are rendered here in such a realistic manner that you can almost see, feel, and even smell it. Even the scene where the Terminator is removing his damaged organic eye; the way Hutson describes it, it makes you wince, even though you know the Terminator doesn't register pain.

Also, the few sex scenes in the book are nicely squishy, and slightly over-broiled. I'm sure this was a nice draw for young male readers back in the 80's.

I mentioned before that the novel and the movie follow pretty much the same track. However, as with most novelizations, there are scenes in the book which offer more detail than what we saw on the big screen, and there are some additional scenes as well. One plus is that in the book we get more of Traxler and Vulkovich, who were always a great team. We also get to see the scene of the second Sarah Connor's murder, and there is also a moment where we realize that destroying Cyberdine was something that Sarah was contemplating from the beginning.

There really isn't anything that I can say as a negative regarding this novelization. I mean, it tells the story we all know and love, and it gives us some fresh takes on it, all slathered in gory gobbets. I will say this; I got my copy from a UK seller. So, there are some "British" variations on words here: dumpsters are garbage skips, apartments are flats, and speedometers are just called speedos (which gets weird, since there are numerous car chases, and when Kyle Reese "looks down at his speedo", you suddenly have a vision of him sitting there in a bathing suit). Also, Hutson has a tendency to use the term "precious seconds" very often. Car hitting a bump while speeding? It'll fly for "precious seconds". Terminator aiming a gun at your head? He'll be zeroing in for "precious seconds".

Oh, and the character is referred to as "Terminator". Not "The Terminator". "Terminator". It takes a little bit to get used to.

And, lastly, Arnie's iconic line is slightly different here. Be forewarned.

All in all, this is an excellent novelization, and it won't cost you your retirement fund to own. Hopefully, I can get a copy of Frake's version sometime this year and do a comparison.

Cover:

The cover of the novel is simply the movie poster. Given that this is one of the greatest, most iconic posters of all time (hell, I still want a pair of Gargoyles), it's a winner.


Monday, May 22, 2017

This Long Vigil

This Long Vigil by Rhett C. Bruno. Originally published December, 2015 by Pervenio Corp. Approx. 20 pages.

Last June, I concluded my review for Rhett C. Bruno's ambitious bounty hunter novel Titanborn with the observation that he has introduced a universe that is fertile ground for additional stories. This Long Vigil, actually published back in 2015, While this emotional short does take place in the same universe, it is not connected to the story of Titanborn protagonist Malcolm Graves. Let's take a look at the blurb before we get to the review.

After twenty five years serving as the lone human Monitor of the Interstellar Ark, Hermes, Orion is scheduled to be placed back in his hibernation chamber with the other members of the crew. Knowing that he will die there and be replaced before the ship's voyage is over, he decides that he won't accept that fate. Whatever it takes he will escape Hermes and see space again, even if it means defying the regulations of his only friend -- the ship-wide artificial intelligence known as Dan.

The story here revolves around Orion's "last day on the job". We watch as he goes through the mundane motions of his daily tasks, eats the same nutrient-balanced food equivalent, and engages in games of riddles with Dan, the AI that overseas all the major operations of the Hermes. 

And yet, something keeps niggling at the back of Orion's mind. Is it a feeling of doubt, of desire, or both? These feelings are exacerbated as he finalizes his choice for his replacement monitor. Day in, and day out, he witnesses births and deaths which occur in stasis tubes. It is Inhabitant 2781, the beautiful young female who is the forerunner in his replacement choices, that apparently spurs the escalation of Orion's desire to want.....well, to want more.

So, Orion has to make the first true choice of his lifetime. What comes out of it is a sobering, emotional tale. You might be expecting something with an element of danger, or perhaps the kindly Dan assuming a dictator role, but that isn't this story. This is a story that reminds us that the tough choices are often the tough choices because they do not come with guaranteed happy endings.

Orion is a nicely done protagonist. We can sympathize, for sure, with the frustration associated with a mundane life of set tasks. At one point I wondered, what is it that drives him to desire "freedom"? It isn't as though he is shown trying to gather additional intelligence on the "worlds out there". But, then you realize, it is basic human nature to try to see, learn, and know what is a step beyond the familiar.

As in his Circuit books, Bruno gives us an AI that is more compelling than the human character. Dan is a system akin to HAL or AUTO, As the story progresses, we wonder if his efforts at rapport are genuine, or set algorithms in place to maintain the mental sanity of the human element on the ship. However, as the story reaches its climax, it becomes apparent that the concern was in fact genuine (or was it?).

There you have it; a fully-realized, emotional tale packed into an economical wordcount. Give this short a read.

Buy it here.

Visit Rhett's site.

Recent TNL interview with Rhett C. Bruno.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Gorgo

Gorgo by Carson Bingham. Originally published by Monarch Books, July, 1960. Approx. 141 pages.

Ok, so here we go with another movie novelization. Most of you who follow the blog know that I am a fan of Godzilla, as well as other giant monster (daikaiju) films. Now, as we all know, the good ol' U.S. of A and Japan are not the only countries to have made giant monster movies. Many others have stepped into the ring, with varied results. Some are great, and some only maintain their notoriety through their lasting mediocrity. Back in 1961, England, land of fish, chips, great actors, and inclement weather, offered the world "Gorgo". It was....well, it's not a bad film.


The acting is pretty wooden, the production values are decent, London makes a great destruction destination, and the costume is clunky as all hell (makes you truly appreciate the Godzilla suit actors). The leads are pretty forgettable, and there's an annoying kid who looks like he was plucked out of a Lassie sequel. And, for some reason, it's not as much fun to watch Brits run in terror as it is Japanese people. Must be the stiff upper lips.

You could say, in the end, that Britain got a Participation Trophy for its involvement in the global kaiju film trade.

Honestly, it's not much to be proud of. Even North Korea won one of those.

All that aside, Gorgo still has its fan base. It even had a comic run with Charlton Comics as well.



But, did you know that Gorgo had a novelization as well? Back in 1960, American pulp novel producer Monarch Books released a treatment of the movie. Let's take a look at the blurb on the back:


If you've actually seen the movie, something about that description will be glaringly odd to you. Namely, who the heck is this Moira character? Gorgo is a movie that is exceedingly bereft of women/romance. If you've seen the Mystery Science Theater treatment of the film (I was going to link it but it's no longer available due to copyright. So much for share the tapes.), Segment 5 of that episode centers around Crow and Servo making a "Women of Gorgo" calendar; the joke being, of course, that there are no women to include on it. So, who is this mysterious, virginal, Moira? Well, more on that in a sec. The way that the novel is structured, it is almost segmented into three parts; and it's best to look at each one at a time.

The opening portion sets the story for us: we meet Joe and Sam, two American salvage trawler operators working off the coast of Ireland. A freak storm tosses them, landing them on the Island of Nara. The crew receives a frosty welcome, courtesy of the shady harbormaster, McCartin. There's more afoot: strange happenings are claiming the lives of local sailors/fishermen. This comes to a head when a nightmarish, prehistoric beast rears its head off the shore. Joe and Sam strike a deal to capture the monster. Then, after making a deal to tender it to the Irish authorities, conniver Joe sells the beast to the owner of Dorkin's Circus in London. Monster in tow, they head off.

This opening act was actually a bit of a surprise. I was expecting some real pulpy, purple, mediocre stuff here. But Bingham (actually a pen name) gives us some authentic seafaring scenes. He even creates some suspense and tension in underwater scenes featuring Gorgo. He fleshes out the leads as well; instead of stiff, B-movie vets, we get a pair of brawling sea dogs (actually, he makes Joe into a yellow-eyed, murderous one).

All fine and good. Then, we get to the second portion; or should I say, the Moira portion. A bit of perspective here; Monarch Books was, as mentioned, best known for pulp books. For an idea of their average offering, let's take a peek at some ads from the back pages of Gorgo:


So, I'm guessing someone at Monarch took a look at the Gorgo material and announced "You know what this needs? It needs a dame angle." And, that's what it got. Enter Moira, a completely naive, consummately buxom young lady living in isolation on Nara. Her and Sam fall predictably hard for one another; to the chagrin of both her dictator-like father, and wolf-eyed Joe. They romance one another, while Gorgo languishes firmly in the background, trapped in a net on the ship. Joe makes a play for her, getting it into Sam's head that she's using him. Sam, in turn, ends up believing whoever is talking to him at the moment, leading him to keep flipping like an epileptic pancake. It's pretty funny. There's a lot of what they used to call "heavy petting". Moira can't seem to move without her clothes hugging and accentuating her ample, nubile curves.

To be honest, this is all a lot of fun. I mean, it is the stuff right out of the time when men's men needed to fight off blood-thirsty weasels and win the swooning girl.

Man, do I remember those days.

What exactly does this have to do with Gorgo, the plot, or the movie it is based on? Absolutely nothing. But then, to play devil's advocate, it's a better substitute than the boring bits in the film.

Finally, we get to the meat and potatoes of any monster film/book; the arrival of the beast. Well, it's no secret (heck, it's mentioned in the linked trailer above), that the captured Gorgo is actually just a baby, and a two hundred foot tall mother is coming to claim it.

I'd say Bingham does this portion fairly well. To be honest, there's not a lot of detail surrounding the monster itself. I don't know if he didn't have a final model to work from, or just couldn't write about Gorgo's flipper ears and over-sized claws without it sounding silly. He even seems to be poking fun at it at one point, mentioning that its motion look more like "someone doing calisthenics" than anything else.

The scenes of destruction and chaos are done well, though. We are given a nice panoramic view of London being destroyed; and it comes off with a realism that trumps what made it to the screen. Heck, throughout the book, the portions which match the movie are all done in a serviceable manner. The problems usually arise whenever Bingham tries to shoehorn Moira back into the narrative. Case in point: one laughable moment when Joe, Sam, and Moira escape an underground rail tunnel after a water main break. Never mind all the collapsed buildings and bodies floating by. Moira turns to Sam, her wet clothes dutifully clinging to her form, and proclaims "Sam! Tis cold I am!" Yeah. Okay, sweetheart. That's the primary concern as London is being destroyed and we are making our egress over the bodies of the fallen.

Other scenes that elicit a good chuckle revolve around London's military defense. Why exactly would you line up your tanks on flimsy bridge to fight a monster that just recently flipped over a Navy destroyer like a dollar store toy boat? Why would you set the Thames on fire and then act surprised when a gust of wind carries the flames to the wooden roofs of nearby buildings? These things make no sense; not in the movie, and certainly not in a book.

And there you have it in a nutshell. The book is not great; but then again, the movie wasn't great either. However, the book is not amateurish, which is what I had feared. The introduced scenes with Moira add a little 'excitement' to the boring parts, but the incongruity of these scenes cannot be overlooked. This is a book whose greatest assets, as well as weaknesses, lie in how dated it is. It is irrefutable fun for giant monster enthusiasts, completist collectors, and fans of novelizations. For all others, you might want to pass. This book does not usually come cheap (this copy set me back about $25 after shipping), and that's a lot of buck for a little bang.

Cover:

Decent grab from the movie. The reddish hue is a nice touch; but honestly, they should've used a different tone, so as to be able to showcase Gorgo's famous blood red eyes.


Friday, May 12, 2017

Sword Art Online 2: Aincrad

Sword Art Online 1:Aincrad by Reki Kawahara. Originally published by Yen Press/Hachette Book Group, 2015. Approx. 242 pages (some color and B&W illustrations as well).

Wow, I can't believe that it's been over a year since I read and reviewed the first light novel in this series. Even sadder, in that time, I've only watched the first three episodes of the show. I must say, I was taken a bit by surprise at how much I enjoyed this title, even to the point where I've begun buying the rest of the novels (they do look quite nice on the shelf). Yes, I am indeed becoming quite the fan of SAO....

Well, maybe not that much of a fan.....

Moving on to Volume 2. I wasn't really sure what to expect in this volume, especially since Volume 1 brought the Aincrad arc to a sufficient close. What Volume 2 actually amounts to is 4 vignettes covering girls that were background characters in the story. Again, since I haven't watched all of the anime, I don't know yet how prominently these girls figure in the show (although Sachi's story, "Red Nosed Reindeer", was the third episode of the show).

The Black Swordsman (49pgs): This story tells how Kirito and Silica the Beast-Tamer first met. This story, to be honest, really isn't that good. Although it is written in the same fun, honest manner, it is just made up of so many "it just so happens" coincidences that it beats your suspension of disbelief over the head. Beast-tamer isn't an official class, but Silica just happens to be one. Monsters don't form emotional bonds with their tamers, but her dragon Pina just so happens to. When it dies; sacrificing itself for her, Silica just so happens to meet Kirito, who just so happens to know about a place to revive it, but it must be done within a time limit set to  necessitate urgency, yet allow for some narrative growth. Well, actually, there was some planning afoot in all the meetings; but still, it comes off as a bit corny.

There is conflict, although by this point in the story Kirito is so "OP" that there is no sense of tension, or risk, involved.

The bonding aspect of the story is fun enough. The problem is that, well, Silica is just kind of annoying. She seems nice and honest enough, but teeters off into being impetuous too easily. Of course, she develops a raging crush on Kirito. I mean, this is all fairly rote and tropey; and usually, the SAO stuff is tropes done right. In this case, not so much so. Still a fun enough story.

Warmth of the Heart (60pgs): The second story tells of how Kirito and Lisbeth the Blacksmith became friends. Lisbeth is a teen blacksmith, of unparalleled skill, who is also hardworking, shrewd, and playful in a teasing manner. She is also Asuna's best friend. However, one day, a mysterious swordsman in black walks into her shop, requesting a one of a kind sword.

In the process of testing her wares, Kirito breaks her best custom sword. The two make a pact to search for a mysterious metal, to see if Lisbeth can fashion a unique sword from that.

The rest of the story details their growing friendship. There is a time in the story, when the two of them are trapped for a bit, which is very effective for portraying the need for basic human interaction - and feeling - that so many trapped in the game are forced to do without. 

For all the falseness of the first story, there is a real touching honesty and depth of emotion in this tale. Maybe it's just that I like Lisbeth a lot more as a character than Silica; who knows? Either way, I think that this story is just better written, overall.

The Girl in the Morning Dew (66pgs): This installment tells the story of Yui, a mysterious young girl found in the woods by Asuna and Kirito during their honeymoon. Exploring the woods after hearing rumors of a 'ghost girl' seen lurking therein, they come upon a lost waif, whom they take in and assume a parental role over. This girl looks to be about 8, yet has regressed in speech to a toddler level (they know she can't be that young because NerveGear has strict controls that prohibit anyone under 13 from logging in, which totally explains how Silica was able to do it at 12). This girl is obviously not a 'ghost', or an NPC. However, she doesn't have stats either - so they can't peg if she's a player or not. So, they decide to head to the Town of Beginnings to see if they can locate her guardian.

There are no answers to be found in the Town of Beginnings, but there is a dilemma - the once respectable Army Guild has devolved into something akin to an extortionist mafia. After befriending a young woman running an impromptu 'orphanage' (again, how young are these kids if they aren't supposed to be under 13?), our intrepid couple sets to right things again.

For the bulk of the story, Yui takes a backseat - mumbling the occasional baby-talk. It isn't until the very end - where the situation allows for convenient exposition - that we get to find out what is going on. At that point, the book really tries to shoehorn in an emotional climax. It's a bit forced, to say the least.

This isn't the worst story in the book, but it isn't great. It's fun enough to see the young newlyweds playing at parenthood, and the new characters are decent. That's really all I can say here.

Red-Nosed Reindeer (41pgs): Reki Kawahara truly saves his best for last here. Readers of the first book will remember that perennial lone wolf Kirito did spend some time with one guild, the Moonlit Black Cats. His subsequent lies to them, in withholding the extent of his power, and their resultant death, hang heavily around his neck like an albatross. However, the heaviest cross he bears is in regards to Sachi, a timid young girl who was a member of the MBC. Poor Sachi, whom he promised would not die - whom he promised he would keep alive. Yeah, the anime goes right into this story on episode 3....


So, yes, Red-Nosed Reindeer tells the story of that doomed guild. It is told in partial flashback format, with the current events centering on Kirito preparing for a special boss quest. The rumor mills have it that when the clock strikes midnight on Christmas Eve, a boss named Nicholas the Renegade will make an appearance, with a bag full of goodies for anyone that can beat him. Best yet, the rumors have it that there might be a resurrection item involved - allowing Kirito to save Sachi, or die the ignoble death he believes he deserves in the process.

Okay, the melodrama is ramped up over 9000 in this story. But, it's all ok, because this is by far the best story in the book. I pondered on that for a bit, and then it hit me - this is the only story told in first-person POV, from Kirito's viewpoint (Warmth of the Heart is the only other first-person POV, but for Lisbeth). Kirito is by and far the heart and soul of this series, and Kawahara is writing on a higher level when he gets inside his head. This story, by far, carries the most gravitas; anger, despondency, and sorrow.

Supporting characterization isn't very strong here; we have an overly emotional appearance by Kirito's friend Klein. Sachi, in the book and in the anime as well, is a pure avatar of the shy, quiet girl that the hero is compelled to want to "care for". Somewhere, in every man's fragile ego, is the need for validation via a proxy such as this. She was made for this role. The rest of the MBC is barely realized. We don't even get their names, save for Keita (the leader) and Tetsuo (the mace-user). Just reading the book, you might not have any idea what they even look like.

Which is why we have the internet.

But, in the end, this is Kirito's story to tell, and it is told very well. Actually, in a way, it is Sachi's story to tell as well, which leads us to the name of the story, and...

...and we'll just leave it at that.

Cover:

Like I said about the last volume, if you like the character design, you'll dig it. Asuna looks better on the cover than Silica, but it is still vibrant and well put together.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Long Time, No See!

How's everybody doing? It seems like only yesterday I was declaring that I wasn't going to let the blog start to languish again, I was going to commit myself to writing, etc., etc., etc....

Well, I did tell the truth; but I didn't do what I said I would. Make sense?

I had a strong January on the blog, and I was really happy with that. I was making up for lost time with The Beast Arises books, and dipping into some classic paperbacks.

Then school happened again. I'll be honest, I haven't been ready for the sheer volume of writing I've had to do this semester. So yes, I told the truth; I've been writing. Heck, I've been writing my ass off, but just not about books, which is something I love to do.

And, just like that, what little free time I had for blogging *poof* disappears.

Meaning, I get to read a lot more of:


And a lot less of:


.....and there was no rejoicing.

Well, enough complaining. I actually have some stuff to post, and then an announcement at the end.

First is a post/rant from MightyThorJRS, who is a damn fine reviewer (if you haven't read his stuff already), and a really cool dude. He touches on some of the - how should I call it? Blog fatigue? Reviewing fatigue? - we all feel from time to time. Trying to hurry to keep in line with the newest releases. Having the self-imposed pressure of what to write in a review interfere with your actually reading enjoyment. I know, no one asked us to do this. Just one of those weird kind of things. Anyway, check it out over here.

Secondly, I'm sure you are all familiar with The Combat Phase podcast, right? Well, in episode 188, recently released, Kenny over at TCR does what I've been dreaming about doing for the past few years - actually having a broadcast interview with Peter Fehervari! Seriously, you need to set aside an hour and forty minutes of your time to listen if you are as big a PF fan as I am. Because, finally, you get to hear him open up on these deep, psychological, wonderful, and terrifying stories he's been crafting over the past few years. So, seriously, give it a listen.

Listen to it here.

And, I must add, at the end, Peter Fehervari gives a quick shout out to the blog here; and, I know I'm a pretty emotional guy by nature, but it really did mean the world to me. More than a few times, I've really been on the verge of closing this blog down, and it's been him a few times that encouraged me to keep at it. Sometimes you need someone like that at certain times.

Alright, enough with the treacly waterworks. But honestly, I did cry a bit at that; see, I told you I'm an emotional mess.

On to the announcement.....well, see how I just talked about not quitting this blog? Well, actually, I am kind of quitting this blog.

I am joining up with my friend Rob, one of the admins over at the Warhammer: Artwork, Books, and Models Facebook group, to make a new review blog called:

Voxcasts From The Void

Please bookmark that and stop by. All of the Warhammer stuff I review going forward will be over there; hopefully, combined with his output, I can get a steadier flow of reviews up.

For the time being, any and all other titles I review I will put up here. I don't yet know how that will change over time. I'm honestly not ready to let go of this blog; there are too many good memories tied up in it.

So please, check out the new blog. The first post is up already - a review of The Last Son of Dorn (The Beast Arises #10).

Alright, hope to see you all here, there, or somewhere. Thanks as always for coming by.